From the desk of Allen C. Lynch: The Russia-Ukraine Conflict

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Allen C. Lynch is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and former director of the university’s Center for Russian & East European Studies (1993–2008). He is a former assistant director of the W. Averell Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union at Columbia University. He is the author of several books, including Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft (2011), How Russia Is Not Ruled: Reflections on Russian Political Development (2005) and Does Russia Have a Democratic Future? (1997). He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. The following is adapted from the forthcoming Understanding Contemporary Russia, 2nd edition, edited by Michael L. Bressler. Used with permission of Lynne Rienner Publishers.

A Brief History of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

The sudden and unexplained turnabout in Ukrainian policy toward Russia and Vladimir Putin at the end of 2013 triggered a massive revolt against President Yanukovich and his government.  In early December, government use of force transformed what had been a crowd of some 10,000 protesters into more than 100,000, many of whom were armed and became increasingly better so over time. Local government buildings throughout western Ukraine were occupied by protestors without significant resistance, underscoring the loss of legitimacy of Yanukovich in much of the country.

This turn of events was alarming for Putin’s government. As the increasingly violent confrontation between the government and the street entered its third month in February 2014, Russia and the EU attempted to broker a deal to end the crisis. On February 21, 2014, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Poland, as well as a Russian representative persuaded the Yanukovich government and its official adversaries to agree to a coalition government pending accelerated national elections before the end of the year. Meanwhile, Yanukovich would remain President. Within twenty-four hours, the armed street in Kiev included a broad array of Yanukovich opponents—including several extreme nationalist factions—made it clear that it would accept no agreement that kept Yanukovich in the government, however temporarily. Yanukovich fled for his life and thus the second Russian attempt to square the circle of Ukrainian sovereignty and Russia’s interests collapsed.

It appears that only at this point did Putin decide to execute contingency plans for the annexation of Crimea. The rapid collapse of the February 21 pact and the rise, with obvious US support, of a government in Kiev dominated by Russophobic leaders, suggested that the fate of Ukraine had become a “zero-sum game,” that is, one in which Ukraine would choose between Moscow and the West in a winner-take-all contest. Under these circumstances, Putin clearly decided that unilateral measures were called for, whatever the fallout in terms of relations with the West: Moscow’s stake in Ukraine’s economic and security orientation was no longer negotiable.

At first, things went far better than could have been expected. Russian military forces already based in Crimea (25,000 were allowed under a previous agreement with Ukraine) sponsored a creeping annexation of the country, encouraging allegedly local Russians to demand Russian intervention and entry into Russia itself. Kiev and the West were caught off guard and Moscow achieved a virtually bloodless coup: by late March, Russia annexed Crimea and there seemed to be little that anyone could do about it. The United States and Europe announced symbolic economic sanctions that targeted a handful of Russians close to Putin but which seemed unlikely to inflict serious damage on the Russian economy.

Several weeks later, the Crimean scenario was repeated in eastern Ukraine, where armed men clearly backed by Moscow overthrew local elected governments in the Donetsk, Luhansk, and Slavyansk regions and proclaimed their independence from Ukraine and their desire to join Russia. By midsummer 2014 it became clear that this time Putin had overplayed his hand. Eastern Ukraine was much more ethnically diverse than Crimea; contrary to popular thinking, in no region of eastern Ukraine did ethnic Russians (unlike in Crimea) constitute a majority of the population. As unmistakable evidence of Russian support for the secession of eastern Ukraine became available, Europe and the US extended their economic sanctions against Russia. Moreover, Russia’s intervention, though indirect, had mobilized broader circles of Ukrainians against Moscow. Indeed, the May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine were the first in the country’s 22-year post-Soviet history in which there was no East-West divide: President-elect Poroshenko received a majority or plurality of the vote in virtually every province of Ukraine. Ironically, Putin seemed to be provoking a consolidation of Ukrainian statehood.

By arming insurgents in Ukraine, mobilizing troops along the border, raising the price of Ukrainian natural gas imports, embargoing Ukrainian exports to Russia, etc., Putin seemed to be making the point that Russia could destabilize Ukraine anyway, anyhow that it wished, and that only Ukrainians would pay the price. In this context, Kiev and the West would have to turn to Moscow for any stable solution to the crisis. These calculations crashed together with Malaysian Air MH-17, which was apparently (and accidentally) destroyed by an anti-aircraft missile launched from territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine in mid-July 2014. Nearly 300 people were killed, the majority of them citizens of EU countries. All of the circumstantial evidence pointed to a missile delivered by Russia to Ukrainian rebels as a response to the increasingly effective military campaign launched by Poroshenko’s government immediately after his election. Absent further Russian escalation, it seemed that Russia’s allies in Ukraine would be defeated.

In reply, and for the first time, Europe as well as America now levied serious economic sanctions on Moscow, touching on finance, investment, and future energy ventures. NATO continued to reinforce its military infrastructure throughout East-Central Europe, including the Baltic states, Poland, and the Black Sea. Military coordination between NATO and Kiev, though far short of weapons deliveries, had also begun. A perfect post-Cold War storm was being created: NATO expansion without a substantive role for Moscow in European security affairs had convinced Russia’s leaders that the West sought to increase its influence along Russia’s borderlands at Moscow’s expense. Russian steps to defend its interests as it understood them and with the tools available to it in turn convinced Europe and the US of Russia’s aggressive intentions, causing the West to embrace Kiev in what amounted to a policy of latter-day containment of Russia. In fact, Putin was acting in a way that, while tactically aggressive, was strategically defensive.

At the end of August 2014, Putin upped the ante. Faced with the impending encirclement of pro-Russian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk, several thousand well-equipped Russian special forces without insignia surreptitiously entered eastern Ukraine and launched devastating attacks against Ukrainian government troops. Within a week, more than 70 percent of Kiev’s heavy equipment had been destroyed and its army in the east forced to beat a hasty retreat. Kiev’s military option in the east had been neutralized, as President Poroshenko himself publicly admitted. He and Putin authorized negotiations to begin in the Belarusian capital Minsk and on September 5, 2014, Kiev and Moscow reached agreement on a cease-fire that included the following terms:

  1. cessation of combat operations throughout eastern Ukraine;
  2. withdrawal of heavy artillery out of range of the other side;
  3. establishment of a buffer zone on each side of the Russian-Ukrainian border, to be monitored by officials from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE);
  4. assurances of a decentralization of power from Kiev to Ukraine’s far eastern provinces;
  5. assurance of Russian-language rights in these same provinces;
  6. assurances of continued economic exchange between Ukraine’s east and Russia;
  7. amnesty for fighters and exchange of prisoners, etc.

By mid-fall 2014, it seemed that a precarious balance had been established between the government in Kiev, increasingly supported politically and economically by the EU and NATO, and the rebellious eastern regions, backed by Russia. The government of Ukraine no longer had the military power to retake the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, so long as Moscow backed their rebellion against rule from Kiev; at the same time, Putin—for all his bravado and against pressure from many Russian nationalists—hesitated to enter Ukraine in force, thereby possibly triggering a long-term guerilla war that in the best case would likely prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. In the event, Putin had made his point: that Ukraine cannot be stabilized—economically, politically, or strategically—without Russia’s agreement.

Clearly, no durable solution to the crisis in Ukraine, which is also a crisis of Ukraine, can be reached in the face of Russian resistance. At the same time, Russia’s own interests can only be met if Russian policy proceeds from a genuine acceptance of the premises of Ukrainian sovereignty. Putin would do well to keep in mind the history of US-Cuban relations since 1959: American refusal to accept the logic of Cuban sovereignty helped transform that island—90 miles from Florida—into a bastion of anti-Americanism that persists to the present day. The risk for Putin is that, in acquiring Crimea and sustaining the detachment of parts of the Ukrainian east from Kiev’s de facto jurisdiction, the rest of Ukraine will be organized on an anti-Russian basis for the indefinite future. This would amount to a strategic defeat for Moscow of the first magnitude.

-Allen C. Lynch